The Word 'Direct' Is Dragging Down Response-Based Marketing

It's Time for Practitioners to Stop Defending Tactics Nobody Wants and Start Listening to Consumers

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Sometimes a brand identity can become so trashed it's virtually unsalvageable. This is clearly the case with the name "direct marketing."

Here's an ugly secret of the direct-response world: Nearly everyone who has ever worked in the field has had to change the name at some point to get a program approved. Seriously.

It's the word "direct." It's reviled by nearly everyone except its practitioners. And despite its noble goals of good targeting, measurable results and ROI, it's become synonymous with unwanted mail and lower creative standards. Certainly the core principles of direct remain relevant -- even desirable -- and much of the work in media from mail to TV can be quite good. But when digital, PR and brand marketers would sooner bite off a foot than admit to being a "direct marketer," that's a big problem.

Why the hate? It's because the direct industry became a defender of "tactics," where it should have been a defender of "processes." Instead of focusing on infusing the principles of response-based marketing into the lexicon of all marketing, we spent time and money defending mail, preaching results over brand and lobbying against legislation consumers want.

For instance, at the recent Direct Marketing Association convention in San Diego, DMA CEO John Greco in his opening session comments said, "We will continue to fight do-not-mail registries wherever they come up."

Excuse me?

Let's do some translation here. Essentially he said, "We will continue to fight for the right to communicate to individuals in ways that they don't want, because you all are too fat on doing things the old way and too lazy to change."

Sure, mail works. It's worth defending. But why not work with governments to craft smarter opt-out/opt-in systems that allow customers to choose how and when they receive messages? Don't we already pay money to put such systems in place?

This is a perfect example of why "direct" has come to represent old thinking and the worst in marketing. The industry pays lip service to being digital, but puts most of its energy into defending mail. It says, "We can be creative, too," but tests down to a generic white envelope and commoditizes the brand. It claims its all about social media, but refuses to listen to the customer's desire for mailing choice. These may not be true or fair assessments of all practitioners, but the charges stick more often than not.

We have squeezed all the results we can from the once proud "direct" name. It's time to drop the word and refocus on defending processes, rather than tactics.

Surprisingly, I'm not alone in this evaluation. I talked to many individuals at DMA '09 that arrived at similar conclusions, not least of which is the incoming chairman of the DMA board of directors, Gene Raitt. The consensus is that to be focused on principles and processes, the industry as a whole needs to eliminate the word that defines them as a single tactic -- mail.

No one is saying that changing a name alone can solve all the image problems. But it does send a clear signal that what we do is an integral part of the complete marketing effort, and that we are focused on increasing results in every marketing venue.

Bob Knorpp is president of The Cool Beans Group, a marketing consultancy, and host of The BeanCast, a weekly marketing podcast. He is also a member of the DMA International ECHO Awards Board of Governors.
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